Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009 | San Diego Unified has used the same process to evaluate its teachers for decades. It rarely pegs teachers with negative ratings, gives them years to improve, and seldom forces their dismissal. No tenured teachers were fired for poor performance last year.

The school district wants to change that process. The teachers union does not. It is a delicate issue that looms in the halting contract negotiations between the union and the district: How to improve decent teachers and boot bad ones without unfairly persecuting teachers who simply differ with principals or work with students who are harder to reach.

And it is no surprise that after a turbulent year marked by budget cuts, teacher layoffs and a bruising school board election fueled with union dollars, San Diego Unified and the teachers union are at odds on that controversial issue. But it is unclear if a new school board sympathetic to the union will continue the push by the previous board to use data more aggressively in teacher evaluation.

“Whether or not this new board continues down that road is something they have to choose,” said Superintendent Terry Grier.

Though San Diego Unified staffers and school board members are tightlipped as union bargaining continues behind closed doors, their proposal and internal reports reveal general dissatisfaction with the existing way that teachers are evaluated, particularly the lack of hard data used to judge their work. The union counters that the process works and has proposed less frequent evaluations for veteran teachers with good records to save time.

The process has changed little over the decades. Teachers and principals typically agree to three objectives to judge their work, such as ensuring that most of their first graders know the sounds of consonant letters or showing that students have improved their spelling. Principals also rate teachers as “effective,” “requires improvement,” or “unsatisfactory” on broad criteria such as “adherence to curricular objectives.”

New teachers are evaluated annually and tenured teachers are evaluated every other year unless a principal is worried about classroom work and calls for a special evaluation. Teachers with more than five years of experience and good records can choose an alternative evaluation that requires a single project instead of the three goals, a popular path that is only allowed if a principal agrees.

Using standardized test scores to judge teachers is forbidden by their union contract and by California law. The union also advises teachers to avoid “getting too scientific and numerical” with the objectives used to gauge their work, said Camille Zombro, president of the San Diego Education Association. It has viewed the advent of new computer systems that link test scores to individual teachers with suspicion, complaining that such tests are a limited and flawed measure of their work.

“Teachers feel they are being blamed for the multitude of factors that contribute to student success and student difficulties,” said Bud Mehan, director of the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Access, and Teaching Excellence at the University of California, San Diego. “There is no excuse for me to not teach students well while they are in my classroom. But I can’t control whether their parents are giving them three square meals a day or letting them watch television instead of doing their homework.”

Chief Human Resources Officer Sam Wong said that San Diego Unified is not pushing to use test scores to judge teachers — nor can it do so legally — but believes that principals need clearer standards that are more closely mapped to district goals and state guidelines such as the California Standards for the Teaching Profession, which include details like “Teachers use a variety of instructional strategies and resources that respond to students’ diverse needs.” A November report recommended that schools seek a new way to evaluate teachers that is “data driven” and includes a wider range of performance ratings.

The current system “does nothing to improve teacher performance,” Wong said, adding, “Teachers need to know, ‘What is it that I am striving for?’ If you don’t have an endpoint then anything will do.”

Details are scant because San Diego Unified staffers can’t comment on the private negotiations. Their initial proposal gave no specifics on how evaluation would be changed.

Coaching and mentoring are supposed to be part and parcel of teacher evaluation. A teacher who gets a poor evaluation is given advice and resources and is evaluated annually until they improve or until the school district pushes to terminate them. It typically takes at least two years and extensive evidence to remove a continually ineffective teacher. Some principals give up or never bother. Others try to counsel bad teachers out of the profession, advising them of other career options that suit their skills.

“It is easy to look the other way and think ‘Maybe they’ll leave,’” said Jeannie Steeg, executive director of the administrators association. “But I believe wholeheartedly that it is our responsibility to do everything we can.”

Very few tenured San Diego Unified teachers get negative evaluations and even fewer are removed out of more than 6,500 tenured teachers now working in the school district. Twenty-three teachers are now under scrutiny after a negative evaluation, said Tim Asfazadour, director of certificated staffing in San Diego Unified. Two teachers resigned last year to avoid being officially fired. And none were terminated for poor performance. Human resources staffers caution the low numbers are not necessarily a red flag because many teachers are screened out before they get tenure or advised to leave.

“There shouldn’t be that many people,” Asfazadour said. “It is a pretty competitive field to get into.”

Zombro believes that the evaluation system is humane and works well because teachers and principals choose their goals together and collaborate. And it is so thorough, Zombro argued, that it can become burdensome for teachers and principals to do every year or two. The union wants to loosen that timeline to once every five years for teachers with a good previous evaluation and more than a decade of experience in San Diego Unified, provided that their principals agree to less frequent evaluations.

“Knowing that you can call a special evaluation at any time” if a teacher is struggling, Zombro said, “why not allow the flexibility for teachers and principals to agree to a longer cycle?”

The arguable shortcomings of teacher evaluation have gained more and more attention among education reformers in recent years as schools nationwide weigh the idea of paying some teachers more than others to reward good work. They tout connecting evaluations more closely to student achievement and instruction and setting clearer standards for the people evaluating teachers.

“Most teacher evaluation is superficial — nothing more than a principal walking into a classroom once or twice a year for a few minutes, toting a checklist of behaviors that often don’t even relate to student achievement,” said Thomas Toch, co-director of the nonpartisan think tank Education Sector.

One possible change is allowing other people to evaluate teachers, relieving the burden on busy principals. School board member Richard Barrera wants to bring other teachers into the process so that teachers can get more frequent and detailed feedback and deemphasize the threat of firing in favor of encouraging teachers to improve. Toch likewise praised Connecticut and Ohio programs that bring in several trained evaluators to do lengthy visits and link teacher training to their specific weaknesses. Unions have historically fought those ideas, leery of outsiders and letting teachers supervise other teachers.

Pouring more time into evaluation also has a price: Toch estimated that his favorite programs cost $1,000 to $5,000 per teacher. Such a system would cost at least $8 million in San Diego Unified, which faces an estimated $50 million shortfall in this school year and expects more cuts in coming years, and where a less expensive plan to revamp principal evaluation recently drew the ire of unions and some trustees. Federal money for teacher improvement is available but is often used elsewhere, as in San Diego Unified, where roughly half of that money not to improve teachers but to hire more of them and keep classes small.

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